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Yankees 2022 Season Preview: Anthony Rizzo

Anthony Rizzo wasn’t the bold roster move Yankees fans wanted, but he’s likely to be a key contributor in 2022.

American League Wild Card Game: New York Yankees v. Boston Red Sox Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Anthony Rizzo has been a remarkably durable, consistently good player for 11 years in MLB. He’ll turn 33 this August, so although his baseball youth is far behind him, he hasn’t yet reached the point where his age is a serious concern. On the surface, knowing what level of production to expect from a player with a resume like his shouldn’t be a Herculean mental endeavor, yet the case of the Yankees’ first baseman is far from a simple one.

2021 Stats: 141 G, 576 PA, 22 HR, .248/.344/.440, .339 wOBA, 112 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR.

FanGraphs Depth Chart Projection: 136 G, 588 PA, 27 HR, .259/.359/.469, .355 wOBA, 127 wRC+, 2.9 fWAR.

From 2014 through 2019, Anthony Rizzo averaged 5.0 bWAR per season while posting a 139 OPS+ in 3,962 PA. Over that stretch he was a three-time All-Star, won four Gold Glove awards, one Silver Slugger, and received NL MVP votes in five seasons, twice finishing in the top five. For some context, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman all had over 3,500 PA over that stretch, so any individual accolade as an NL first baseman in that era was quite an accomplishment. (Goldschmidt was the only one of the four to better both Rizzo’s bWAR and OPS+ over that six season span.)

Since then, Rizzo has produced 2.8 bWAR and posted a 109 OPS+ over 199 games and 819 PA. That’s not bad per se, but it’s not good either. (In fact, the WAR is 16th among MLB first basemen since the start of 2020 and the OPS+ is only good for 24th best at the position, minimum 500 PA.)

Of course, citing those numbers without context isn’t fair. 2020 was not only a very unusual season, but it was a very short one as well. Then, in 2021 Rizzo switched teams and leagues midseason, which obviously requires a good degree of mental and physical adjustments. How much we want to weigh those factors when discussing Rizzo is up to each one of us, but I think we’d agree they were indeed a factor in his performance to some degree.

Unfortunately, looking more closely at Rizzo’s past two seasons doesn’t provide too much clarity either. On the down side, he posted the lowest walk rate of his career in 2021 and his .339 wOBA was his lowest full season number since 2013 (but both were still better than league average.) Yet his average exit velocity in 2021 was the second best single season number in his career and his BABIP of .258 was 25 points below his career average. The absence of any notable changes in contact, quality of contact, direction of bated balls and chase rates doesn’t help us much either when trying to predict his future performance.

What could change heading into 2020? As a batter who both pulls the ball and elevates it at higher rates than league averages, Rizzo will likely benefit from a full season in Yankee Stadium. What’s often lost in discussion about Wrigley Field being a good hitter’s park is that the right field line is 353’ away from home plate – the farthest right field corner from home plate in any MLB stadium. If you’re thinking that the Yankee Stadium corner, which is a mere pitching wedge away, might help Rizzo’s home run totals (and therefore Yankees’ runs totals,) the smart folks over at Baseball Savant agree: Rizzo has hit 61 long balls since 2019, but would have had 73 if all his PA had been in Yankee Stadium according to them.

It also must be noted that though it can be debated exactly how much the surrounding players in a lineup can help an individual player, being in the Yankee lineup certainly isn’t going to hurt Rizzo. The Yankees have a pretty good group of power hitters, most of whom are in their prime, who Rizzo will be surrounded by in the lineup. The 2020 and 2021 Cubs might be remembered by some, but it certainly won’t be because of their scary lineups.

Since I brought up pull hitting, and since so much of the discussion surrounding Rizzo’s acquisition revolved around him being left handed, it’s worth noting two things. First, although he surprisingly performed better against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching last season, that was an outlier as historically he’s been much better against righties. Secondly, although Rizzo had the 13th most PA against the shift in MLB last season it didn’t really make a difference as he posted a .340 wOBA against shifted defenses and .335 wOBA with no shift.

*There have been no rule changes yet limiting defensive shifts, but the possibility still exists for there to be changes at some point during Rizzo’s Yankee tenure. Regardless, it’s unlikely to move the needle notably in either direction.

If you’d like to be the glass half empty type and point out that context aside, Rizzo hasn’t been very good for a season and a half, and was not great with the Yankees last season - especially after returning from a 12 day COVID absence in which he posted an anemic .241/.325/.397 slash line over the season’s last six weeks – I wouldn’t dismiss that altogether, as that’s certainly fair skepticism. Yet I’d still lean more toward 2020 and 2021 being very unusual circumstances that saw the performances of many players vary widely, and his sample size as a Yankee is just too small to take anything of significance from.

I don’t like making assumptions, but I think it’s safe to say that the Anthony Rizzo that tore up the National League from 2014 through 2019 won’t be returning. That said, I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect him to be better in 2022 than what we saw from him last season. Rizzo may not be what Yankee fans really wanted this offseason, but I expect him to be similar to his FanGraphs projection above – upper 20s in long balls and about 3 WAR – which is to say, a good player for the Bombers in 2022.